Leak Reveals Warnings Inside Census That Shortened Schedule Risks 'Serious Errors'

Sep 2, 2020
Originally published on September 2, 2020 7:23 pm

Updated at 6:09 p.m. ET

A Census Bureau analysis has concluded that its curtailed schedule for the 2020 census increases the risk of "serious errors" in the results for the national head count, according to an internal bureau document obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The document — a slide deck dated Aug. 3 and marked "Not for Public Distribution" — warns that "serious errors discovered in the data may not be fixed — due to lack of time to research and understand the root cause or to re-run and re-review one or multiple state files."

The revelation marks the first substantial disclosure of concern from within the bureau about the potential impact of its shortened timetable for completing the national head count.

It comes almost a month after the bureau confirmed that last-minute changes directed by the Trump administration had forced it to speed up its timeline to finish counting and prepare the latest state population totals to be delivered to President Trump by the end of this year as currently required by federal law.

Those changes have not only cut counting efforts a month short but also truncated the time left for the bureau to review and check all of the data it has collected this year for the once-a-decade, constitutionally mandated head count.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau, has emphasized in recent weeks that the bureau is "on its way to delivering a successful count" by incentivizing its door knockers to work more hours in trying to get unresponsive households counted "without sacrificing quality."

But with about three months to process the count's results after counting is set to end on Sept. 30, many former Census Bureau officials and other census advocates have been sounding the alarm about the potential threat to the accuracy of numbers used for reapportioning seats in Congress, redrawing political maps and distributing an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for public services.

The Census Bureau has declined to comment on the document, the bureau's chief spokesperson Michael Cook tells NPR.

In a press release on Wednesday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, noted that the bureau's leaders did not provide the committee with the document, which the congresswoman said was obtained from "another source."

Under the time pressure, the bureau's plan has deprioritized the other legally required set of census results — detailed demographic data that state and local officials need for redistricting next year.

"Delivery of redistricting data products will be negatively impacted under this revised plan and we are determining full impacts," the document warns.

The slide deck also notes that the cancellation of a key part of the bureau's count review operation that was scheduled to take place this month is likely to lead to "virtually certain vocal objections" from state demographers involved in the program and from state governors. The operation has already helped the Census Bureau gather input from local officials to identify more than 240,000 housing units and 6,500 group living quarters, including nursing homes and prisons, that were missing from the bureau's records.

A growing number of mostly Democratic lawmakers in Congress have been urging leaders in both the House and Senate to include legislation in the next coronavirus relief package that would extend legal deadlines for reporting census results, which could give the bureau more time to finish the count and process the results.

In a letter to congressional leaders released Wednesday, Maloney cited the slide deck as additional evidence that "makes clear that Congress must act now to fulfill our responsibility under the Constitution to help ensure an accurate and complete count for the 2020 Census."

"If we do not, our constituents — both Democrats and Republicans — could be directly harmed," Maloney wrote.

: 9/01/20

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that census numbers are used to distribute an estimated Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org..5 billion a year in federal funding. In fact, that number is estimated at Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org..5 trillion.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An internal document has leaked from the U.S. Census Bureau with a grave warning. The Trump administration's recent decision to shorten the 2020 census schedule risks, quote, "serious errors" in the national headcount. That was the conclusion of the Census Bureau's own analysis. It became public today through the House Oversight Committee. The Census Bureau has told NPR it declines to comment on the situation. Well, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census related. He is here to comment. He's on the line from New York.

Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What else does this leaked document from the Census Bureau say?

WANG: Well, there are serious warnings here about the accuracy of census results. The main issue here is that after counting is supposed to stop at the end of this month, according to the Census Bureau's current schedule, the bureau still needs time to sort through all that information and try to find and fix any mistakes in the data, which, you know, sounds really technical and nerdy.

But let's not forget when we're talking about the census, these are population numbers used to determine how many House seats, Electoral College votes each state gets, how voting maps are redrawn and how trillions in federal funding are distributed to local communities for the next 10 years. And the warning here from inside the Census Bureau is that there is not enough time to get these numbers right because of this shortened schedule.

KELLY: OK. How did they not anticipate, Hansi, that this might be a problem? I mean, what was the thinking? Why the push for the shortened census schedule?

WANG: You know, it's a bit of a mystery. President Trump himself said back in April that the bureau needed more time because of the pandemic. But then he issued this memo in July that calls for unauthorized immigrants to be left out of not the census in general but specifically the numbers used for redistributing seats in Congress among the states, even though the 14th Amendment of the Constitution says those numbers should include the whole number of persons in each state. But that memo came out, and more than a week later, I broke the story that the Trump administration had apparently decided that they wanted counting for the 2020 census to be done sooner rather than later. And that would mean that the first set of census results would be delivered to President Trump even if he doesn't win reelection. And we're talking about the same set of census results that President Trump wants to exclude unauthorized immigrants from.

KELLY: OK. Well, if they're looking at a possible train wreck here, is there any way to walk this back? Can the Census Bureau add time back for counting?

WANG: There are two federal lawsuits right now racing to try to get a court ruling that forces the Census Bureau to go back to a longer schedule that they developed in response to COVID-19. And some census advocates are watching to see if Congress, maybe through the next coronavirus relief package, passes a law that extends reporting deadlines for census results. And that could give the Census Bureau more time to keep on counting past September 30 and through October 31 and also more time to process these results and make sure their count is as accurate as possible. But time is running out. There are 28 days left of counting for the 2020 census according to the Census Bureau schedule right now.

KELLY: All right, lots to sift through there. And we shall watch and see if they manage to come up with any kind of solution for this. That is NPR's Hansi Lo Wang - he covers the 2020 census - reporting on this leaked document from the U.S. Census Bureau warning that there may be serious errors in the national headcount.

Hansi, thank you so much.

WANG: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

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